Department of Education

What is autism?

Autism is a term used to describe a neurological difference in brain development that has a marked effect on how a person develops. There are four areas of difference that are particularly important to understand and pay attention to because most children and young people on the autism spectrum will have individual educational needs to be met in these areas.

Every child and young person on the autism spectrum will have a range of abilities and needs within each of these areas:

The four key areas of difference

Social understanding

Differences in understanding social behaviour and the feelings of others, which informs the development of friendships and relationships.

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Sensory processing

Differences in perceiving sensory information. Hypo (low sensitivity), hyper (high sensitivity), touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste, vestibular inner ear (balance), proprioceptive (body awareness)

Interests and information processing

Differences in perception, planning, understanding concepts, generalising, predicting, managing transitions, passions for interests and ability to absorb auditory or spoken information.

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Communication

Differences in understanding and expressing communication and language, with skills ranging from individuals who are highly articulate, to others who may be non–verbal. Good language skills may mask a deep level of misunderstanding.

These four areas of difference create high levels of stress and anxiety, and this can have a profound impact on an individual’s performance and behaviour.

Most children and young people with autism find social interaction with adults and peers difficult and tiring. Children and young people with autism are not easily able to understand commonly used implicit social messages and may find it hard to understand or relate to how social rules change due to context, or what is considered socially ‘appropriate’ (ie what is appropriate to say and do in some situations is inappropriate in other situations). It is hard for young people on the autism spectrum to easily and quickly read and understand the emotional intentions of staff and peers, but it should also be remembered that this can be a ‘two-way’ difficulty. The actions of children and young people on the autism spectrum are often misinterpreted as intentionally insensitive or defiant. Children and young people on the autism spectrum may need help to develop the skills which will support them to understand, manage and/or make friendships and relationships.

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Children and young people with autism at all levels of intellectual ability have difficulties in understanding the communication and language of adults and peers and in communicating effectively themselves. About 40% of children with autism are delayed in learning to speak and some people develop little or no speech. It is likely that most children and young people with autism will need support and strategies to help teach them how to communicate with staff and peers in order to have their needs met. This can involve the use of alternative means of communication (e.g. objects of reference, visual symbols, photos, gestures, spoken word, or a combination of means). It should be remembered that an approach to communication for young people should be consistent across the school day.

Children and young people with autism find change much more difficult than others as they are not easily able to predict what will happen instead or what to do in the changed situation. Some children and young people with autism develop special interests in a topic or activity which may occupy a great deal of their thought and time. Such interests can be used to very good effect as part of the learning process and can be broadened into related areas and act as a route into employment. Children and young people on the autism spectrum have an uneven profile of abilities, which can also coincide with other factors such as age, personality, or the existence of other developmental differences or impairments. It is therefore of paramount importance to assess each child and young person to gain an overall profile of their strengths and needs.

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Many children and young people with autism may have levels of sensory perception that are atypical/outside the typical range. This can mean that they may be hypo or hyper sensitive to particular sensory stimuli such as sights, sounds and smells. They may also be overwhelmed as they have problems in separating out sensory information and attending to the most relevant. This can cause high levels of anxiety and staff can do a great deal to reduce this by finding out what each child and young person finds hard and creating a classroom and school environment which addresses these difficulties.

Difference not deficit

There is often an assumption that children and young people on the autism spectrum need to behave and live like those without autism. Many adults on the autism spectrum take exception to this assumption and the fact that much of the literature on autism uses medical terms such as deficit, disorder, and intervention. They argue that such terms are both inaccurate and stigmatising and based on an incorrect notion of what humanity and normalcy entail.

They argue that such notions can further disable people on the autism spectrum, and if internalised can lead to crises in self-identity, esteem and worth. On the other hand, there are others that argue that they are severely impaired and want to retain the term disorder to explain their experience. In recognition of this debate, much of the literature now just refers to autism or autism spectrum and not autism spectrum disorder or condition. If their needs are recognised and appropriate support is given, a significant number of young people on the autism spectrum will experience relatively few difficulties in their school lives and into adulthood.

The term autism spectrum was created by Lorna Wing in 1996 who suggested that it is simpler to state that all individuals affected in the four areas are on the autism spectrum, rather than trying to categorise them under other specific groups. Although different subgroups have been identified (e.g. Asperger syndrome, high functioning autism, ‘classic’ autism, atypical autism, semantic pragmatic syndrome), it is current thinking that such distinctions are not easily made, and these have been merged into one category of autism spectrum in the revised diagnostic classification system DSM V (2013).

How many children and young people on the autism spectrum are there?

It is estimated that approximately 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. Autism is hard to detect in some young people, particularly in girls, so there may be young people in your setting who are not yet diagnosed. Autism commonly co-occurs with other conditions, including learning difficulties, epilepsy, sensory impairments or problems with mental health. More men and boys than women and girls have a diagnosis of autism, and boys tend to be diagnosed earlier. However, identifying and addressing the educational needs of a young person does not depend on having a diagnosis, whether that is autism, a literacy problem, or a social and communication difficulty, for example. Staff should not focus all their efforts on ‘getting a formal diagnosis’ as they can address the needs of the child or young person without this, by finding out with the individual, exactly what aspects of their learning programme are difficult and the type of support the child or young person would like and benefit from.

How many children and young people on the autism spectrum have exceptional skills or talents?

A significant number of children and young people on the autism spectrum have good knowledge and skills in a specific area, relative to their skills in other areas. They often have a much more uneven profile of skills and difficulties than others, so it is important that staff do not assume that because individuals have average or above average skills or attainments in some areas, this does not mean they have no problems in educational, social or work settings.

Which conditions often co-occur together on the autism spectrum?

Autism commonly co-occurs with other conditions, including learning difficulties, epilepsy, sensory impairments or problems with mental health. It is estimated that about 44-52% of people on the autism spectrum may have a learning disability (National Autistic Society 2015). Commonly associated problems on the autism spectrum are sleep disturbance, limited diet and/or erratic eating and drinking times/constipation and gut problems. About a third of individuals on the autism spectrum also have epilepsy which may be hard to detect. Many children and young people on the autism spectrum also experience high levels of anxiety due to their difficulties in interpreting the world they live in.

All of these additional difficulties can have an adverse effect on an individual’s ability to focus on tasks and it is vital that good information is shared between all those who are involved with the child or young person, so that they recognise the impact and can provide appropriate support.

Autism in a social context

Reports from adults and children on the autism spectrum often state that it is not their autism that poses them difficulties as such, but the expectations and responses they have from other people. In particular, the expectation to act, respond and learn in the same way that more typically developing peers do.

When working with children and young people on the autism spectrum, it is imperative to understand that such individuals have a differing way of processing information and thus differing understandings and social expectations to their more typically developing peers. This can create great difficulties with regard to understanding the communications and intentions of others, as well as a perceived lack of understanding from others of their own intentions.

This disruption in mutual understanding coupled with potential sensory sensitivities can make educational settings particularly challenging environments for children and young people on the autism spectrum. It is therefore vital that staff who work with them enhance their understanding of these differences and make adjustments to their own style of interaction and their expectations and modify how they interact and deliver the curriculum to these children and young people.

AET



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